The Europeans do everything better: German mothers raise children better, French women eat better, the Danes create cozy, relaxing atmospheres better. At least that's what bestselling books tell us.
Now, with "The Swedish Art of Aging Exuberantly: Life Wisdom From Someone Who Will (Probably) Die Before You," the latest from octogenarian Margareta Magnusson, the Swedes appear to have the superlative lock on questions of life and death. In this follow-up to "The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning," the retired mother of five crafts simple, universally applicable rules for anyone thinking about the time they have left.
There are no Goopy guidelines for adopting an aspirational lifestyle or promises that products might protect you from the inevitability of aging. Instead, Magnusson quilts together private moments to reveal the life lessons she wants to impart: Live within your means, enjoy the moment (especially with children), don't complain, try to leave this place better than you found it. Oh, and wear stripes.
Given the nature of the advice — and that Magnusson spent much of her adult life abroad, making homes in Annapolis, Singapore and Hong Kong — it's hard to know what elements of this life plan are Swedish, exactly, which is something she also notes. "If you are expecting that the Swedish secrets I will tell you will involve jumping into the frozen North Sea to stay young or taking long saunas, like some of my fellow older Swedes do, or eating ground-up reindeer horn in your morning muesli, I will disappoint you," she writes. Indeed, the most Swedish thing about her books is her tone, which she captures when she describes the nationality as "quite blunt, clear-eyed, and unsentimental."
With wry humor and wit, Magnusson details a full life lived across three continents during a century of incredible upheaval. Composed during the initial days of the coronavirus pandemic, the book reflects at once on the present moment, full of illness and isolation, and on days long past. Writing about her childhood in neutral Sweden during World War II, Magnusson relays what she can remember of a long stay on a family friend's farm after evacuating from the western port city of Gothenburg.
After describing leisurely breakfasts on her own, during which she reached into the bottom of an oven mitt in the shape of a hen to pull out still-warm boiled eggs, she notes: "I couldn't know it at the time, but when I think back to it now it seems unbelievable that the extreme horrors and the simple joys of the world can exist simultaneously."
That thread intertwining daily delights with global cataclysm runs through the book. In a chapter titled, "The World Is Always Ending," she recounts how, cursed to live in interesting times, she had been frightened by what felt like catastrophic events, such as the Cold War and Chernobyl. How she had come of age in a time of waste, tossing plastics into the ocean on sailing voyages and not thinking twice about climate change.
With the perspective of age, she finds herself appealing to others of her own generation to leave the world better than they found it and asks those her grandchildren's age to retain hope and take action for the sake of future generations. "The world is always ending, and yet it continues to survive," she writes. "We must always hope for a sustainable future, but hope alone is not enough."
Though such conversations can feel a bit morbid, Magnusson's book is anything but. Like her previous guide on preparing for death, "The Swedish Art of Aging Exuberantly" focuses much more on the absurdities of life after a certain age. With the curmudgeonliness that one might expect from a mobility-limited grandmother, she writes, "I hate it when things change," as she describes tangling with a duvet cover while making the bed. A few short sentences later, though, she does an about-face, returning to her signature charm and good humor. "I love it when things change."
Among the other tips Magnusson provides in brief anecdote-laden chapters: Eat chocolate every day. As an antidote to what ails you, she likewise advises drinking a gin and tonic with friends. Beyond glib indulgences, these suggestions allow the writer to philosophize on life's greater meanings. The chocolate she recommends is a thumb in the nose of diet culture. The gin, instead of encouraging alcoholism, is a reminder to stop and smell the juniper berries while catching up with those who have known you the longest.
Her advice avoids the tropes commonly found in a heavily youth-worshiping market obsessed with optimization. She instead prescribes that people of all ages pick up kart besvar — loosely translated as the banal habits or, perhaps more appropriately, daily burdens that will eventually shape your days. Get a cat. Water a plant. Find religion or music or holiday traditions to ground yourself.
Mundane though this advice may sound, she demonstrates that with age, routine is key. As is being open to new things: "The older I get, the more I find that I remember clearly all the things I said yes to, just when I was about to say no. I must admit I have not been open-minded all the time. I just wish I had been."
Whether she's telling the tale of a son thought lost to sea after a three-day voyage turned into a week's journey or recounting a trip to the hospital that had her family in a tizzy, Magnusson shares enough short tidbits from a wealth of personal experiences to leave readers wondering what she possibly could have missed out on.
And that is where the beauty in this story lies. Magnusson's hybrid memoir, with its cheeky and concise prose, will engage readers of all ages in a way that the sometimes-obvious advice for aging may not. While publishers embrace the trope of European superiority to market books like Magnusson's, here the nationalistic comparisons may be more a burden than a blessing. Margareta Magnusson is a wonderful storyteller full of wisdom, and this book embodies her attitude of exuberance nicely, even if the advice for aging she imparts feels more familiar than foreign.
Courtney Tenz writes about European travel and culture from her home in Germany.
The Swedish Art of Aging Exuberantly
By: Margareta Magnusson.
Publisher: Scribner, 141 pages, $19.99.